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I HAD VISITED Chogali village
so often, in stray moments, it some-
times seemed I never left. In reality,
almost a year had passed since my hus-
band and I volunteered in medical clin-
ics along the Thai-Burma border.
We took many snapshots, but I
didn't need them to travel back -- down
the rutted elephant trail, across the
steppingstones in the stream, past the
black pig in the bamboo pen, along the
path lined with white star ﬂowers that
smell like magic.
This is how I liked to remember
Chogali, as a place of little girls and
orchids, of peace and hope.
Actually, Chogali was -- and is --
in the middle of a war.
On one side is a military dictator-
ship that in the past 35 years has killed,
tortured and displaced millions. On the
other are ethnic tribes who want au-
tonomy and dissidents who want de-
The military is winning. Burma's
people have lost just about everything
that makes life decent. And every year,
things get worse.
In this country of chaos, Chogali
was an oasis. The village was nurtured
by a remarkable woman known along
an article on mutual funds.
Suddenly, I was back in Chogali.
This time, I was surrounded by artil-
lery, exploding bamboo, snakes wrig-
gling in the heat, ash settling on empty
huts. At least I hoped they were empty.
I hoped the village people had all es-
caped, scattered into the jungle. I re-
called a human-rights documentary in
which a former Burmese soldier, in
tears, admitted raping village girls.
I thought I saw the little orchid
girls hiding in a grove of banana fronds.
I felt relieved they were malnourished,
too light to crunch the bamboo leaves
I hoped they were together. I
hoped the soldiers would not ﬁnd them.
I wondered if they were cold.
I wondered what I could do.
I turned to the only thing I know
how to do: I dug out my passport and
went back to the Thai-Burma border,
this time as a reporter.
I realized the war in Burma might
seem as distant to most readers in Se-
attle as it once did to me -- just another
of the many confounding "ethnic con-
ﬂicts" smoldering around the globe as
the century closes. Bosnia, Rwanda,
Chechnya, Congo, Cambodia -- news
the border as "Dr. Cynthia." She ran a
clinic there, took in orphans and trained
medics to care for hill-tribe people who
had no other access to modern health
That such a gentle community
could exist in the middle of war be-
came my antidote to the world's hor-
After we came home to Seattle
last summer, I kept returning, in my
mind, to Chogali. To escape from the
blur of news of war, of genocide, of
rape, of hunger and hate . . . .
I'd hear a snippet, read a headline,
then drift away to be with the little or-
chid girls, mixing mud and rain in co-
conut shells -- playing pretend within a
game of pretend.
Then Chogali fell.
The message came over the Inter-
net one morning last February, a few
sips into my ﬁrst cup of tea:
"Burmese Relief Center -- Japan
has just received information SLORC
(the Burmese military) occupied Cho-
gali yesterday morning."
As I read it, the little girls ap-
peared again, shoulders hunched,
scared. I wandered around the news-
room, unsure if I could ﬁnish writing
FROM RICE COOKER TO AUTOCLAVE | 41
we struggle to understand, news we
struggle to ignore.
The problem isn't that we don't
care. We're rarely given the chance.
Most of our news about war is
dominated by quotes from pundits, de-
bate about economic sanctions, dis-
patches on the latest counteroffensive.
But war is not only about weaponry
and economics and aging generals
grasping for more power. War is about
little girls playing in a village.
I returned to the Thai-Burma bor-
der as a journalist, but I wanted to write
a story of the heart.
I longed to ﬁnd those two little
orchid girls. They were real. They
haunted me. I needed to know what
war had done to them, what it was do-
ing to me, what it can do to us all.
Secretly, I hoped I might save
WE HAD FIRST HEARD about
Cynthia Maung at a party on a rainy
Seattle night in fall 1995. A public-ra-
dio reporter had told us about a young
Burmese doctor, herself a refugee, who
ran clinics on the Thai-Burma border.
Mother Teresa to Burmese refu-
gees... in her 30s... ﬂed Burma after the
1988 military crackdown... main clinic
in Thailand... several thatched-hut clin-
ics in rebel-controlled Burma... Every-
body calls her, simply, Dr. Cynthia.
My husband, Tao, had ﬁnished
his pediatric residency -- four years of
life as a tired blur -- and we wanted to
have an adventure, do something
hands-on. In March 1996, we landed at
Dr. Cynthia's main clinic in Mae Sot,
Thailand, a dusty town about a 20-min-
ute jog from the Burma border. For the
next three months, Tao would see pa-
tients and teach pediatrics, while I
would peel mountains of garlic, lead a
dawn aerobics class and type Dr. Cyn-
thia's ﬁeld reports and grant applica-
The tin-roof clinic sits on the
edge of parched rice paddies in Thai-
land's hottest province. The air smelled
of blood and iodine, sewage and steam-
ing rice. Everywhere, there were fuzzy
chicks, suckling kittens, nursing moms.
The place oozed with fertility. This was
not what I had expected.
I had imagined, before we ar-
rived, that we would see battle wounds
like in "M*A*S*H," when the theme
music plays and the choppers swoop
down and the medics crouch low under
rotor blades, carrying moaning men on
stretchers. I had expected cowboy sur-
geons extracting shrapnel, nurses hold-
ing gauze over land-mine stumps, le-
gions of muddy army boots. This was
war, wasn't it?
In the slow heat of the ﬁrst morn-
ing, I kept waiting for the arrival of
bloody soldiers but kept seeing more
and more women. Pregnant women.
Women shivering with malaria. Wom-
en coughing from tuberculosis. Women
bent over from diarrhea. Factory girls
with ugly rashes on their legs and gash-
es on their hands. Emaciated ladies
with glazed yellow eyes.
Every so often, a rickety blue
pickup loaded with garlic and bananas
skittered off the road where the pave-
ment crumbled into dirt. Out jumped
children, their scrawny brown legs
covered with mosquito bites. Then a
small parade of tired women unfolded
from the back of the truck and shufﬂed
into the clinic, leaving ﬂip-ﬂops at the
door. By noon, the concrete stoop was
covered with ﬂip-ﬂops, mismatched,
dusty, smudged under the toes. No
Finally, I realized, this was it.
This was war: waged by men, dumped
in the laps of women.
"I didn't have much idea about
war before I came here," Dr. Cynthia
told me, "but everywhere I see the men
go off to ﬁght or get captured, and the
women and children suffer most."
Dr. Cynthia has done much to re-
duce that suffering. In addition to the
main clinic at Mae Sot, she ran a half-
dozen smaller ﬁeld clinics in jungle
villages across the border in Burma --
When we visited last year, Cho-
gali had 29 babies, 56 other children,
148 adults, 60 bamboo houses, ﬁve el-
ephants, one microscope, no electricity
and no cars.
Gurgling blue PVC pipes Dr.
Cynthia had installed to divert clean
water from upstream meant the women
didn't have to spend three hours a day
hauling water in oil cans while the men
The teak-leaf nursery school she
had built fed the children one good
meal a day, monitored their vision and
growth, screened for worms, immu-
The latex squat latrines she had
installed helped dry up dysentery and
cholera. The training she gave mid-
wives meant fewer mothers and babies
died from infection. Her clinic treated
malaria and malnutrition and snake
The little orchid girls had seemed
safe, playing with tiny white blos-
I do not mean to romanticize what
was, essentially, a harsh subsistence. I
just want you to know what was lost.
by: Paula Bock, Seattle Times 1997
42 | FROM RICE COOKER TO AUTOCLAVE
MTC opened one of the ﬁrst day
care centres in the Mae Sot Area in
1995. As the children continued to
grow, the next obvious step was the de-
velopment of a primary school; thus
began MTC’s Children’s Development
Center in 1998, one of the many mi-
grant schools that would open in the
Mae Sot area.
Burma ranks ﬁfth worst in the world on
education spending at 1.2% of GDP. 15
Some parents also wished to send
their children to Thai schools, but were
faced with difﬁculties when they
couldn’t provide supporting birth reg-
istration documents for their children.
In response to this, as well as to ad-
dress the issues of statelessness, teach-
ers, health workers, and other con-
cerned individuals worked on raising
awareness and assisted with establish-
ing documentation for migrant chil-
Until 2000 there were no formal
meetings between the migrant schools,
but in April 2000 that changed when
thirteen schools came together to form
the Burmese Migrant Education Work-
ing Group, through which there were
regular meetings revolving around in-
15 CIA World Factbook, 2009.
such diverse ethnic, political and his-
torical backgrounds comes together.
Furthermore, although progress has
been made, it is estimated that less the
30% of the migrant children between
ages 5-18 are actually attending school.
Efforts are being undertaken to make
education even more accessible, with
some organizations trying to introduce
a night school program for students
who are forced to work throughout the
day, most often in agricultural work.
There are also current initiatives to
make the Thai education system more
accessible to migrant school kids and
to achieve closer integration between
the Thai and migrant programs. The
Thai Ministry of Education is working
with BMWEC on an inclusive educa-
tion program with activities including
standardizing curriculum for primary
schools, training teachers and research
on improving access to the Thai educa-
Even children who cross the bor-
der with their parents often end up in
boarding facilities. The parents often
do not ﬁnd full time employment, and
even if they do, the wages are so low
that they can barely afford to feed their
family let alone send their children to
school. If the parent is lucky enough to
ﬁnd full time employment it often
means that they stay at the factory or
farm where they are working, with the
boss requiring the children to begin
working as soon as they are able. Par-
ents realize that sending their children
to a boarding facility will ensure ac-
cess to an education as well as three
meals a day for their child and safety
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